The fast-flow­ing stream of for­eign artists at­tracted to life in China in­cludes many Aus­tralians, writes Bren­dan Shana­han

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

WITH his black Le Cor­bus­ier glasses and shabby sheep­skin coat, a cig­a­rette dan­gling per­ma­nently from his lips, Lau­rens Tan looks ev­ery bit the artist. In his stu­dio in Bei­jing, sur­rounded by his bright pop art sculp­tures, the for­mer aca­demic and rock ’ n’ roll bass player talks about why he made the shift from his home in Syd­ney to Bei­jing.

‘‘ Af­ter 28 years work­ing as an artist and an aca­demic I wanted to see where I could go that could be lib­er­at­ing. I didn’t want to con­form to a sys­tem; I wanted to go some­where that was open-ended and open­minded,’’ says Tan, 60, who was im­pressed by the lively eclec­ti­cism of China’s art scene, un­bur­dened by the of­ten ho­mogenis­ing con­straints of West­ern con­tem­po­rary art. ‘‘ Bei­jing just hap­pened to be it.’’

Tan, who is ex­hibit­ing at Syd­ney’s Bondi Junc­tion at present (the show closes tonight), was born in The Nether­lands, the child of Chinese In­done­sians, and grew up in north­ern NSW. Al­though he says he was in­spired to some ex­tent by a ‘‘ cu­rios­ity about my her­itage’’, Tan’s move to Bei­jing is part of a broader trend. In re­cent years China has seen a rapid in­flux of for­eign artists, most based in Bei­jing. It’s an un­prece­dented shift: for the first time since the colo­nial pe­riod, artists from the West are mov­ing to Asia to make their for­tunes.

This time, how­ever, they’re do­ing it on their host nation’s terms. The at­trac­tions of Bei­jing to artists are ob­vi­ous: enor­mous, cheap stu­dios in a so­phis­ti­cated me­trop­o­lis, ac­cess to world art mar­kets, a con­stant stream of stim­u­lat­ing com­pany, a ‘‘ can do’’ attitude and the chance to dig into an an­cient and rapidly chang­ing cul­ture.

The prob­lems are some­times just as ob­vi­ous: homes and stu­dios can be de­mol­ished to make way for new de­vel­op­ments with lit­tle no­tice or resti­tu­tion, the Chinese gallery scene is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from that in the West, the work of for­eign artists has a very lim­ited com­mer­cial mar­ket and Bei­jing is hardly Paris in the spring­time. De­spite this, artists from Aus­tralia and across the world con­tinue to ar­rive.

Tony Scott is an artist, cu­ra­tor and founder of China Art Projects, a Bei­jing gallery and cul­tural ex­change pro­gram. ‘‘ I got hooked on Bei­jing,’’ says Scott, who re­lo­cated four years ago but has been vis­it­ing since 1994. He be­lieves the trend for for­eign artists to move to China will only grow. ‘‘ There’s a steady stream com­ing here to work. In the old days they would all leave af­ter a pe­riod, but now there are peo­ple staying longer and there are peo­ple who have been qui­etly work­ing here for longer than we would as­sume.’’

The mo­tives of artists com­ing to China vary. Alex Gib­son, 32, is an in­ter­net and

con­cep­tual artist who fin­ished art school in Mel­bourne and re­lo­cated to China ear­lier this year. He was at­tracted to the cul­ture of mod­ern China and soon found him­self drawn into Bei­jing’s cos­mopoli­tan art scene. ‘‘ There are far more for­eign artists here than in Aus­tralia,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s amaz­ing to be ex­posed to that. This is one of the global megapolises. On a cul­tural ex­change level, it’s in­cred­i­bly di­verse and cos­mopoli­tan.’’

Richard Lee, 40, is a fig­u­ra­tive pain­ter orig­i­nally from Tam­worth, NSW. His move to China was spurred by a fas­ci­na­tion with Tao­ism and other East­ern philoso­phies. ‘‘ I think a lot of peo­ple came here be­cause they were think­ing in terms of art ca­reer and the scene here. I wasn’t re­ally think­ing about that. I was just fol­low­ing an­other in­ter­est in the philo­soph­i­cal think­ing about paint­ing. And the best thing was that what I found here was not what I ex­pected. I spent a lot more time in­volved with con­tem­po­rary art fairs and do­ing per­for­mance art, which wasn’t what I ex­pected at all.’’

Like many other artists who have made the move to China, Lee is ex­cited by the global op­por­tu­ni­ties the coun­try of­fers: a French cu­ra­tor vis­ited his first solo show and he is now rep­re­sented in Paris, where he has had sell-out ex­hi­bi­tions. He be­lieves such good for­tune would have been un­likely in Aus­tralia. Of course, it hasn’t been all good times: in 2008 he was bit­ten by a dog, got frost­bite on his feet while work­ing in his freez­ing stu­dio and had half his face paral­ysed by a mys­te­ri­ous ill­ness. When he took up English teach­ing to pay for his crip­pling hos­pi­tal bills, he lost sev­eral months’ wages when the school’s di­rec­tor dis­ap­peared af­ter the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

Still, Lee’s love af­fair with Bei­jing con­tin­ues. ‘‘ I think you get suck­ered in by that hor­ri­ble­ness. When I got sick, peo­ple said, ‘ Why didn’t you just come home?’ And I re­ally don’t know. You just get a bit fas­ci­nated, even by the freez­ing cold win­ter.’’

One big at­trac­tion of China for for­eign artists is the abil­ity to man­u­fac­ture largescale works in hi-tech or tra­di­tional ma­te­ri­als, the kind of ex­pen­sive pro­duc­tion nor­mally out of reach back home. Many cite this as a mo­tive for com­ing to China, al­though the ris­ing cost of liv­ing is start­ing to lessen the at­trac­tion. ‘‘ I didn’t come here be­cause of the ease of man­u­fac­ture,’’ Tan says. ‘‘ A lot of Chinese man­u­fac­tur­ers now go to In­dia, Thai­land, Viet­nam, Africa to get things made be­cause it’s cheaper.’’

And price is not the only fac­tor to con­sider, es­pe­cially when pro­duc­ing del­i­cate works of art to ex­act­ing stan­dards. Al­though he of­ten em­ploys en­tire vil­lages of fi­bre­glass cast­ers and spray painters, Tan has strug­gled with qual­ity con­trol.

‘‘ My first solo show [in China] was in May 2008 and I had it up and run­ning in four months, from scratch. I had some­thing like 36 ob­jects and they were all made within a pe­riod of three months, which is pretty amaz­ing. But I spent most of the time polic­ing and reg­u­lat­ing what was be­ing done. And what I didn’t po­lice closely enough I’m pay­ing for now by hav­ing to re­make the work. Qual­ity is a big is­sue.’’

Denise Keele-bed­ford, 59, has been com­mut­ing be­tween China and Aus­tralia for al­most 10 years and loves be­ing able to make large-scale works us­ing the skills of lo­cal lac­quer­ware crafts­men. Like Tan, how­ever, she has ex­pe­ri­enced prob­lems, ex­ac­er­bated by her fre­quent trips home. ‘‘ It can be very frus­trat­ing,’’ she says of her re­la­tion­ship with crafts­men. ‘‘ As soon as I leave they tend to for­get about me. There’s a sense that, ‘ Oh, I should be there. I should be on top of it, re­mind­ing them I still want the work done.’ I can’t quite leave it for them to fin­ish.’’

De­spite the ir­ri­ta­tions and oc­ca­sional hard­ships of life in China — her first stu­dio was de­mol­ished with only a month’s no­tice — Keele-bed­ford finds life in the cap­i­tal and the op­por­tu­ni­ties it brings worth it. ‘‘ I was in­vited to do an in­stal­la­tion with Shang­hai Fash­ion Week last year. They looked at the web­site and said: ‘ We like this, can you do that?’ It was a rather dif­fi­cult in­stal­la­tion and they said: ‘ Well, what are your re­quire­ments? We’ll give you what you need.’ And they did.’’ Such things keep her go­ing back.

One of the most se­nior artists to make the move is Jayne Dyer, who has ex­hib­ited in in­sti­tu­tions across Aus­tralia, China, Tai­wan, Hong Kong and Bri­tain. She first went to China in 1994, mov­ing there per­ma­nently in 2007: the at­trac­tion was im­me­di­ate. Dyer speaks of the in­tense en­ergy that comes from be­ing in a coun­try go­ing through ‘‘ ex­treme change’’. ‘‘ And for [art] prac­tice it cre­ates a lot of ques­tions: about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween so­cial and po­lit­i­cal art, about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween econ­omy and cul­ture.’’

Like Tan and Keele-bed­ford, Dyer works with lo­cal fab­ri­ca­tors on large-scale sculp­tures and in­stal­la­tions. Not only can she make works on a scale be­yond her means in Aus­tralia, China has given her many more op­por­tu­ni­ties. ‘‘ I do com­mis­sions in Aus­tralia but the com­mis­sions in China, there’s no doubt it’s a big­ger mar­ket — China, Hong Kong and now In­dia as well.’’

Dyer says be­ing phys­i­cally avail­able in China is a ne­ces­sity, not only be­cause of geo­graphic con­ve­nience but be­cause per­sonal con­nec­tions and in­tro­duc­tions are cen­tral to all as­pects of Chinese cul­ture, es­pe­cially in busi­ness. ‘‘ I got a call two days ago from a con­sul­tant in Hong Kong to do an­other big de­vel­op­ment. I can fly there to­mor­row, look at the site, take pho­tos and then put in what I think would be a good lay­out. Of course I could still do it from Aus­tralia but it would be much more dif­fi­cult, both in time and cost.’’

For all the ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties China can of­fer an artist, Bei­jing can’t yet be said to be a true global art hub. ‘‘ Some artists want to come here be­cause they want to have ex­pe­ri­ence over­seas,’’ Dyer says. ‘‘ But the shows they may have are quite dif­fer­ent to the shows they have in their own coun­try. The idea of a Westerner think­ing they’re go­ing to build a tra­jec­tory of com­mer­cial shows, lead­ing to mu­seum shows and crit­i­cal ap­praisal, isn’t the same here.

‘‘ The com­mer­cial struc­ture is sound, par­tic­u­larly for Chinese artists. But the mu­seum and ed­u­ca­tion struc­ture is still emerg­ing. Even within ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion for the arts, it’s still tra­di­tional with the top­down ap­proach. It’s only now that is be­ing read­dressed.’’

With such a large com­mu­nity of artists liv­ing in count­less artists’ vil­lages through­out the cap­i­tal, Bei­jing on the sur­face would seem to be what au­thor Peter Hall calls a ‘‘ cul­tural cru­cible’’, anal­o­gous to Paris at the turn of the 20th cen­tury or New York af­ter World War II. Un­like in those great cap­i­tals, how­ever, Chinese mod­ern art grew out of specif­i­cally Chinese cir­cum­stances: the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, its af­ter­math and China’s mod­erni­sa­tion. For for­eign­ers to par­tic­i­pate fully in that seems im­pos­si­ble.

With his transna­tional back­ground, Tan is used to feel­ing like an out­sider. In a place like New York, he says, his blurred cul­tural iden­tity may not be an is­sue, but the na­ture of the Chinese art mar­ket de­mands more sim­plis­tic def­i­ni­tions. ‘‘ One of the prob­lems with Chinese con­tem­po­rary art is that it did well by virtue of its unique­ness, its brand­ing. Which means it’s de­fined by its Chinese-ness. So if it’s not as ‘ Chinese’, it’s not as much part of the con­tem­po­rary Chinese art scene.’’

Michael Yuen, 28, is an emerg­ing artist, orig­i­nally from Ade­laide. His work of­ten in­volves per­for­mance and in­stal­la­tions, in­clud­ing The Don­key In­sti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary Art, in which he led a don­key loaded with books through the streets of Bei­jing, and Fol­low, a per­for­mance in which he pays crowds of peo­ple to fol­low him. Un­like Tan, Yuen, whose par­ents are Chinese from Hong Kong and In­done­sia, is not cu­ri­ous about ex­plor­ing his eth­nic an­ces­try; his in­ter­est lies more in mil­len­nial urbanism. His as­sess­ment of the Bei­jing art scene is sur­pris­ingly blunt.

‘‘ I don’t think the art scene here is that in­ter­est­ing. It was a hive of ac­tiv­ity; that doesn’t make it in­ter­est­ing. What is in­ter­est­ing is the city it­self and the cross­roads it’s at. Peo­ple know that the last gen­er­a­tion of artists have made their con­tri­bu­tion and they’ve opened the field for a younger gen­er­a­tion to play, and the younger gen­er­a­tion of artists hasn’t brought those ideas on to the scene. Maybe the ideas aren’t there.’’

Whether the Bei­jing art scene has the in­tel­lec­tual back­bone nec­es­sary to be a global art cen­tre is per­haps ir­rel­e­vant con­sid­er­ing how much money it is turn­ing over. In less than 10 years China has seen mind-bog­gling growth in its art mar­ket. The GFC scared spec­u­la­tors off and prices for mid-range con­tem­po­rary artists crashed, but the re­cent sale of the Baron Guy Ul­lens col­lec­tion sig­nalled a re­cov­ery: sev­eral artists broke auc­tion records and an early trip­tych by Zhang Xiao­gang went for $US10 mil­lion. Ac­cord­ing to art-track­ing data­base art­, China has just edged ahead of the US to be­come the world’s big­gest mar­ket.

But de­spite the game-chang­ing growth, for­eign artists can­not ex­pect much com­mer­cial ben­e­fit: Chinese buy­ers, mostly, are not look­ing to buy works by for­eign­ers and most in­ter­na­tional buy­ers and cu­ra­tors have come to China look­ing for Chinese artists.

‘‘ Chinese col­lec­tors, in terms of con­tem­po­rary art, es­pe­cially since 2008, are very wary of any­thing other than blue-chip stock,’’ says Reg Ne­witt, a cu­ra­tor with CAP. ‘‘ There aren’t a lot of art crit­ics and gen­uine art writers up here. It would be hard to say that Aus­tralian artists get a lot of in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion through the Chinese com­mu­nity. It’s more likely they’ll try to pick up a rep­u­ta­tion back in Aus­tralia by as­so­ci­a­tion of be­ing up here and work­ing.’’

The way the Chinese mar­ket works can also frus­trate artists ac­cus­tomed to the stan­dard West­ern gallery sta­ble sys­tem.

‘‘ I think you have to ac­cept that there is not the gallery or mu­seum scene in China that there is in the West,’’ Scott says. ‘‘ Chinese artists have tra­di­tion­ally han­dled their own art ca­reer; they bro­ker their own deals. Gal­leries, when they try to es­tab­lish them­selves, have to work out that fol­low­ing a West­ern plan is not go­ing to work. Gal­leries that show artists may not be ex­clu­sive deal­ers. The auc­tion houses have huge sway, per­haps more than any­one. Al­most any­thing goes. It’s al­most the Wild East.’’

One per­son qual­i­fied to dis­cuss the Wild East of the Chinese art mar­ket is Aus­tralian Brian Wal­lace. In 1984 Wal­lace ar­rived in China as a back­packer. In 1991 he opened Red Gate Gallery, China’s first com­mer­cial gallery. More than any in­di­vid­ual, Wal­lace has been re­spon­si­ble for the present crop of Aus­tralian artists mov­ing to China. For the past 10 years his gallery has of­fered the Red Gate Res­i­dency, a pro­gram that sets up artists with stu­dio space and con­tacts in Bei­jing. All the artists in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle have done a Red Gate Res­i­dency.

De­spite be­ing friends with al­most ev­ery Aus­tralian artist in China, and oc­ca­sion­ally ex­hibit­ing work by some, such as Tan, Wal­lace doesn’t rep­re­sent any for­eign-born artists. He says most lo­cal buy­ers have al­most no knowl­edge of non-Chinese con­tem­po­rary art. In­deed, it’s only in the past cou­ple of years most have em­braced con­tem­po­rary art from their own coun­try.

He adds the main­land Chinese art mar­ket of­fers lit­tle in­cen­tive to show or sell nonChi­nese art. ‘‘ If you want to im­port a work of art you have to pay a 30 per cent or 40 per cent cus­toms duty. So any­one par­tic­i­pat­ing in an art fair has to load in that tax. Whereas in Hong Kong it’s vir­tu­ally tax-free.’’

There is also the ele­phant in the room: cen­sor­ship, es­pe­cially per­ti­nent as the Chinese gov­ern­ment cracks down on artists and in­tel­lec­tu­als such as out­spo­ken artist and ar­chi­tect Ai Wei­wei, who was ar­rested in April. ‘‘ Even though so­ci­ety has be­come very free and open, when it comes to very spe­cific cul­tural ar­eas, they’re a bit more wor­ried,’’ Wal­lace says. ‘‘ There’s cen­sor­ship of the art fairs, cen­sor­ship of [gallery com­plex] 798, cen­sor­ship where we are [at Red Gate], and also any for­eign work com­ing in. If you’re talk­ing about po­lit­i­cal is­sues that are sen­si­tive in China, you will come into some trou­ble.’’

Yuen is keen to em­pha­sise he has had lit­tle di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence of state-spon­sored cen­sor­ship in China. Even though plain­clothes po­lice of­fi­cers visit his ex­hi­bi­tions, their ex­changes have been cor­dial. One even shared a beer with him. De­spite this, Yuen be­lieves there is con­stant, al­most sub­con­scious cen­sor­ship of art.

‘‘ The de­gree to which a mu­seum will cen­sor you be­fore the work gets to the state and the de­gree that you will cen­sor what you do be­fore it gets to the mu­seum or gallery is sig­nif­i­cant,’’ he says.

In 2008, Yuen staged a per­for­mance of Fol­low in Shang­hai. The mu­seum spon­sor­ing the event told him to halve his de­sired 100 par­tic­i­pants for fear it would be mis­taken as a ‘‘ gather­ing’’, dan­ger­ous when the state was crack­ing down on any­thing that might in­ter­rupt the glo­ri­ous Olympics.

De­spite these brushes with au­thor­ity, Yuen points out Aus­tralia is not with­out its own state-spon­sored ab­sur­di­ties. ‘‘ There were two at­tempts to put a Fol­low on in Aus­tralia. The or­gan­i­sa­tion I was work­ing with wanted se­cu­rity guards to mon­i­tor the crowd. And the in­surance com­pany said, ‘ We can’t find a way to in­sure [the per­for­mance].’ ’’ The pro­ject never hap­pened.

Tan is un­sure how much longer he should stay in China. ‘‘ To be hon­est, I still ask the ques­tion, ‘ Why the f . . k am I here?’ It’s not an easy life, though some suf­fer more than oth­ers. I’ve been here al­most five years and China has changed a lot.’’ Yet de­spite his reser­va­tions Tan still be­lieves his time there has yet to come to an end.

‘‘ I want to find out a bit more about this con­di­tion of be­ing a for­eigner in this land. In a way the sep­a­ra­tion has some­thing to of­fer: there’s a lot of am­bi­gu­ity be­tween East and West. There’s some­thing in that am­bi­gu­ity that’s worth in­ves­ti­gat­ing. As long as I can ex­tract valu­able things from that dif­fer­ence, then I ap­pre­ci­ate be­ing in that sit­u­a­tion.’’

Lau­rens Tan

Clock­wise from top left, Denise Keelebed­ford at work in Bei­jing; Alex Gib­son; Michael Yuen and fol­low­ers near Peo­ple’s Square, Shang­hai, in 2008; and a set of stat­ues by Tony Scott

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